Tag Archives: Jonathan Glazer

Focus On: Photo Battle

Aliza shadow

by Gabriel Valdez

Photo Battle is my new favorite blog. Two photographers enter, one photographer leaves.

Every week, two photographers are given a single-word theme – empty, shadow, two, fear – and submit three photos centered on that theme. Readers vote for their favorite set. Photographers will battle each other a few times and…past that, I’m not sure of the rules. Tourney, round robin, single-elimination, I don’t think it matters.

What’s exciting is staring at two evocative photo sets every week and letting your mind wander. While I don’t typically like creating artistic battles where there aren’t any, I tend to think Photo Battle‘s purpose is more in sharing art with a growing community. Every week, fans of one artist are exposed to another they may not have heard about.

I was tipped off to this by the brilliant Laura Zalenga, a German photographer who uses photo manipulation to create clever, fairy tale imagery. The photo at the top of this article is one of her submissions for the “Shadow” battle, in which she faced off against Aliza Razell, a Scotland-based photographer whose imagery evokes David Lynch and Jonathan Glazer by way of Jim Henson and Waterhouse.

Photo Battle is a phenomenal way of featuring photographers and introducing new artists. It’s one of the most enjoyable blogs I’ve discovered.

Half-Year Awards — Best Screenplays, Director, and Film

You know the preamble. Let’s just dive right in:


Best Adapted Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel, Noah

A lot of people hate the story in Noah. It’s too bastardized, they say. Damn straight, I say. The story of Noah doesn’t belong to the Bible. It was around long before, transmuted into a plethora of different stories across different cultures that highlight contrasting details. Noah never adopts an orphan in the Bible. This is a reference to Korean flood mythology. There are no giants in the Bible’s Noah. This is a Midrashic conceit that belongs to certain sects of Judaism. Noah doesn’t contemplate exterminating his grandchildren in the Bible. This sequence combines reflections of other Biblical books – the jettisoned baby in Exodus, the crisis of faith in Job, and most importantly the tale of Abraham in Genesis.

There are countless other details from a variety of other religions folded into Aronofsky’s retelling of Noah. It creates a Frankenstein’s monster of a myth, housing itself inside Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions alike and vibrantly socially aware of the moment in time it arrives in our world.

Feel free to hate it for not being accurate to your interpretation of Noah, but Noah was never yours to begin with. Neither is it Aronofsky’s or Handel’s, and their patchwork retelling reminds us that it’s not so much the detail in the story that’s important – those details are completely different for everybody – but it’s the common meaning those various interpretations seek to teach us that is crucial.

The narrative details aren’t sacred. They’re just as bastardized in the Bible as they are out of it. The meanings are sacred. The world’s done a horrible job of getting this through its head. We argue about the length of Noah’s ark and its width and what wood it was made from and how he fed the animals while we ignore that in all those stories, God sends down the flood because we were annihilating each other and so lost in petty bickering we ignored the needs of the helpless among us. Understand that before you come at Noah complaining it’s not accurate enough.

Devoutness of detail can often be a useless habit. Give me a new interpretation that reminds me of the old meaning any day of the week.

The Rover lead

Best Original Screenplay: Joel Edgerton & David Michod, The Rover

We so rarely get short stories on film anymore. Our movies today sprawl, like labyrinths meant to make the biggest and most widely talked-about mark on our social calendars. Every character gets his or her own realization mid-plot, so we can check the character development box off the list and justify a dozen different character-specific posters. Even in our blockbusters, two sides aren’t enough anymore. I like my seven-sided, choatic end-battles, believe me, but there are only so many writers and filmmakers who can truly hack that.

What about the short story? What about visiting a time and place for just a moment, getting just a glimpse? What about leaving us wanting to know more? Many of our works of art have forgotten how to shield their characters from us. Characters are thrown at us with gadgets and costume changes and sidekicks for spinoffs. That’s fine…so long as we don’t forget those other movies, the ones that contain characters we should never want to see again, or that we should wish to save, or that we should pity, or that we should hate. Sometimes all at once. The Rover visits a time and place we should never want to see and delivers characters we should never want to meet. It stays long enough so that we begin to care what happens anyway, that we begin to understand why someone might be a way we never could be ourselves, and then it exits gracefully.

Like The Proposition a decade before, which also starred Guy Pearce, it crafts a haunting story from an elegant blend of poetic dialogue, stark visual, and simple structure. In a short story, every word matters. So, too, in The Rover. Every word, every shot, every cut matters, and builds to a whole at just the right moment – the second before the credits roll. It forces you to take a piece of that time and place you’d never visit back with you into the real world, to contrast the two, to be terrified at their similarities and joyous at their differences. It’s a staggering work that demands tears and silence and reverence. The Rover is a fire-and-brimstone sermon in the church of film.

Under the Skin

Best Director: Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin

My choice for this at the end of last year was Alfonso Cuaron for his pioneering work in Gravity. At least until I saw Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. But that’s another essay. This year, it’s the polar opposite of those two directors. Instead of Cuaron’s painstaking cinematic techniques, so groundbreaking they demanded new inventions, and instead of Wong Kar-Wai’s precise, artistic framing (nearly every shot is so painterly it’s worthy of its own essay), Glazer is much more hands-off. He gathered a wild array of fringe talent and let them go wild.

In various Guardian articles, and in my own interview with author Michel Faber, who wrote the novel on which the film Under the Skin is based, Glazer’s loose, guerrilla approach to filmmaking began to take shape: Conversations with passersby recorded on hidden camera. Covert microphones hidden in umbrellas picking up stray conversation on the streets of Edinburgh. An FX studio let loose to envision an alien’s digestive tract in visual metaphor. Documentarian shots of both nature and civilization. An experimental rock musician asked to score it all.

What Glazer does is invite chaos into his movie, trusting himself enough to shape it. The result is a mash of experimental techniques fused into a powerful whole. These diverse technical experiments shine through so much that you can even see how contributors’ interpretations agree and disagree. It’s rare that so loose and experimental an approach results in a film so tight and complete. The most difficult part of directing is knowing when to control chaos and knowing when to unleash it. For mastering the balance, at least for this film, Glazer does something just as impressive as inventing new technologies or framing everything with painterly perfection.

Under the Skin lead

Best Film: Under the Skin

Any other year, this wouldn’t be a contest. It would be The Rover with nothing else close. But Under the Skin is the best film we’ve had in many years, the most challenging, the one that does something film is very often incapable of doing. Many films put you in someone else’s shoes. Almost none trick you into filling out the shoes of a sociopath and rapist. The film has such command of allegory, it truly makes you stop and contemplate a perspective that’s (hopefully) completely alien to you, and it transports you very uncomfortably outside of your own realm of sensation and experience.

Also take a look at our Half-Year Technical Awards and our Half-Year Acting Awards.

An Interview with Michel Faber, Author of “Under the Skin”

Under the Skin

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to ask a few questions of Michel Faber, the author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White. He had responded to my review for Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. Scotland’s a long way away, so after confirming it was him, I ran things pretty informally in the comments section. I enjoy correspondence interviews because, as you’ll see, they allow for more considered responses.

Without further ado, the interview, beginning with his response to my review:

Michel Faber: This is among the more interesting responses I’ve read so far to Glazer’s film of my novel. The film is indeed experimental and, quite apart from admiring its intrinsic merits, I’m relishing the fact that such a thing has infiltrated the marketplace and reached moviegoers who might not otherwise have got detoured so far outside their comfort zone. This is analogous to what I tried to do with the novel, which lulled readers into thinking it was a conventional horror-thriller before taking them on a very different ride altogether.

Gabriel Valdez: Thank you, Michel! It’s an honor that you took the time to respond to my review. I’m a fan of how you approach genre as a form to be molded into something new rather than strictly followed. I am curious – many authors dislike when so many liberties are taken in adapting their work. It sounds like you’re quite the opposite. Do you feel as if Glazer using the bones and tone of the novel to create the film’s own message is more important than holding to the narrative details that you established? What kind of input did you seek in that process of turning Under the Skin into something so different?

Michel Faber: When readers read a novel – especially novels as visceral and visual as mine – a kind of movie plays in their heads, and the specifics of character and atmosphere (the book’s ‘casting’ and ‘cinematography’, if you like) are controlled by the author. So I would hope that anyone reading my novel would be pulled into my novel’s distinctive world rather than (mis)perceiving the book as a prose version of Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Jonathan Glazer’s film. In other words, the book remains what it is no matter what other versions are out there.

My main concern about Glazer’s movie (and, before that, the BBC series of The Crimson Petal, and the stage adaptation of The Fahrenheit Twins) was that they should be strong works of art in themselves. A mediocre or weak adaptation that tried to be faithful would have upset me; a strong adaptation that took wild liberties made me very happy. I’ve been lucky so far. My only regret is that Jonathan Demme wasn’t able to get his version of The Courage Consort off the ground, as I think that might have made a lovely movie too, especially if a good ensemble cast had improvised it.

For me, the ideal book-into-film adaptation of all time was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Ruthlessly unfaithful and yet true to the essence.

Apocalypse Now

UtS 1

Gabriel Valdez: Apocalypse Now answers the next question I was going to ask. I’m always curious about editing, for both writers and filmmakers. It’s the stage at which the connective tissue of a piece comes together, often in ways you don’t initially expect.

For someone who researches so painstakingly, do you find that the story is written in your notes before you even begin the narrative in earnest, or is it still coming together even as you edit? I’m also curious about the point of diminishing returns as a storyteller. Your language can be so precise – is there a perfect ideal of the story that you feel you achieve, a stopping point where you sit back and acknowledge the story’s right where it needs to be…or could you just go on editing forever?

Michel Faber: Because I write on computers, the distinction between notes, drafts, and editing blurs. Also, different pieces are tackled in different ways: The Crimson Petal was rigorously planned while my forthcoming novel The Book of Strange New Things was allowed to develop more instinctively/organically. Under the Skin was somewhere in between.

As for the editing/finessing process, it could indeed go on forever. When I do public readings I often stub my toe on things in the prose that I wish I could change. Some authors hate being pushed by editors to (re-)engage with their text once they’ve “finished” it; they’ve lived with it too long already and are desperate to move on. I respect that. But in my case, I’m happy to keep working on it to make it better, as many drafts as it takes.

It’s interesting to compare this with film-making, particularly the semi-improvised sort of film-making that Glazer employed in his movie of Under the Skin. If you’re filming scenes with people who are not actors & unaware that they’re being filmed (as happened in various scenes of Under the Skin) or if you’re filming in unrepeatable weather conditions (for instance the scene where Scarlett’s alien observes the people drowning in the wild surf, which according to Glazer was a totally flat, calm ocean on the days when they weren’t filming), you are at the mercy of the footage fate gives you. You can edit it obsessively in the editing suite, to finesse the rhythms and juxtapositions, but the raw material is what it is. Whereas a novelist can change the raw material.

One of the reasons Apocalypse Now is such a successful movie is that Coppola and his team were able to adjust, and make creative use of, the many things that didn’t go as planned during the shoot. So instead of clinging to their original vision of the movie and allowing it to be sunk by the disasters that eroded that vision, they changed the vision to incorporate the fiascos. Novelists are free to discard three months’ worth of writing and all they lose is time. Film makers don’t have that leeway; they need to work with what they manage to capture in a limited time frame.

Under the Skin as if by Winslow Homer

Gabriel Valdez: I had no idea they hadn’t searched out such a rough stretch of sea just for its wildness. So much of the film really is capturing lightning in a bottle.

How do you feel about the reader or viewer taking ownership of the work once it’s out of the author’s (or filmmaker’s) hands? My reading of the movie Under the Skin, for instance, relies on analyzing multiple scenes but really hinges on a sound cue. Especially under someone like Glazer, whose imagery and editing is exacting but who values improvisation, it could have been Johansson or himself or Mica Levi who saw that opportunity in the storytelling. They might all look at that moment as hammering home a different message; certainly critics have taken a variety of meanings from it.

I’m sure you’ve had moments when critics and readers have derived meanings from your work that were different than intended. Your novels have many overarching themes, but they also have these very natural moments when we catch characters in a scene that might not be crucial to the narrative, but is absolutely crucial to inhabiting the world, in feeling and sensing the texture and pace of a place. Those are very accessible moments and can invite readers to start attaching their own, personal meanings to your work. Do you enjoy when readers extrapolate something different from what you intended? Is it frustrating that readers may miss some of your own meanings or are you proud that your work lends itself to such flexibility? Or a combination of both?

Michel Faber: If you go to Amazon and browse through the readers’ responses to novels – any novels, whether simple or complex – you will soon be overwhelmed with evidence that most people are looking for very personal resonances in a book and will rate it solely according to whether it hits that spot. Often, what the author intends the book to be “about” is dismissed as irrelevant, or not even noticed.

An analogous thing happens with music, where, for the average listener, a song is “good” if it reconnects them with an emotionally significant phase of their life – and even then, maybe only a few of the words of the lyric rather than the whole thing. Notoriously, zillions of people cherish The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” or Baby Bird’s “You’re Gorgeous” as swooningly romantic anthems, playing them at their weddings as “our song”, when in fact the lyrics are, respectively, about creepy stalkery possessiveness and about the sexual exploitation of a model by her photographer.

As a novelist, I have to accept that some readers just won’t “get it”. I’ve put the book into their hands and it’s theirs to consume as they wish. Other readers will understand what I’m trying to achieve, and that’s gratifying. And other readers will see things in the work that I wasn’t aware of when I was writing it but which, on reflection, I realise are valid. It’s just like a friend pointing out something about your character that you hadn’t noticed yourself.

In any book, I hope to strike a balance between stuff that I weave very deliberately into it, and stuff that ends up in there for deep, unconscious reasons. Readers and critics can sometimes alert me to things that I am helplessly or instinctively channeling, and I’m always intrigued when that happens.

I want to thank Michel Faber once again for taking the time to respond to my review for Under the Skin and answer a few questions. Under the Skin comes out for DVD/Blu-Ray on July 15. I encourage you to see it; it is the best film I’ve seen in the last two years.